Armchair Treasure Hunts

During the pandemic, I rediscovered my love of an addictive activity called Armchair Treasure Hunts.

The phrase “Armchair Treasure Hunts” is actually a bit of a misnomer. The hunts may start in an armchair, but hunters soon venture out into the real world with spades and metal detectors, often digging up yards and trespassing and causing all sorts of mischief.

The original Armchair Hunt was birthed by a 1979 British picture book called Masquerade by a big-bearded and reclusive artist named Kit Williams. I loved that book as a kid, and spent countless hours studying it.

The book contains a series of detailed and fantastical images—a man with rabbit ears and a violin, the Sun dancing with the Moon, and so forth. The paintings contained clues to the location of a real-life treasure buried somewhere in England: a golden rabbit about the size of a paperback book, insured for £100,000.

Well, it drove the world insane—or at least a certain portion of the world.

“Masqueraders dug up acres of countryside, traveled hundreds of thousands of miles, wrote tens of thousands of letters to Williams, and occasionally got stuck halfway up cliffs or were apprehended by police while trespassing on historic properties,” as an article in the literary journal Hazlitt puts it.

I never went to England, but I did have my theories. That seagull means it must be on the coast!

At the time, Kit Williams told reporters that all the unexpected attention from Masquerade wrecked his life. People would knock on his door at 3 a.m. He got tens of thousands of letters and terrifying packages, such as a disembodied, blood-covered plastic hand.

But when I tracked down Kit and chatted with him on the phone, he seemed more bemused and mystified than angry. “People flew from all over, spent their life savings. It was a bit embarrassing … One man wrote me seven thousand words a day. That’s more than I ever wrote in my life!”

After two years of ransacked gardens, the rabbit was found. It was dug up in a park in the county of Bedfordshire near a statue of Catherine of Aragon, underneath the tip of the shadow she casts at noon on the equinox.

The discovery itself was a little messy, since the man who found it apparently had gained inside information about the general location from an ex-girlfriend of Kit’s.

But regardless, the great Masquerade hunt was over.

Or was it?

A British journalist devoted an entire book to the phenomenon called The Quest for the Golden Hare, and he writes:

“Tens of thousands of letters from Masqueraders have convinced me that the human mind has an equal capacity for pattern-matching and self-deception. While some addicts were busy cooking the riddle, others were more single-mindedly continuing their own pursuit of the hare quite regardless of the news that it had been found. Their own theories had come to seem so convincing that no exterior evidence could refute them.”

What a scary insight into how we think! We are not always swayed by evidence. We spot a pattern, fall in love with it, and refuse to change. QAnon followers are basically obsessed Masqueraders but chasing a nonexistent cabal of cannibals instead of a golden rabbit.

While researching a book about puzzles, I stumbled across several other armchair hunts that are still unsolved.

One in particular interested me. It was hatched by a 1982 book called The Secret, not to be confused with the woo-woo self-help megahit The Secret, which promises to make every five-foot-five-inch accountant an NBA superstar if he just visualizes it hard enough.

No, this Secret was created by a writer named Byron Preiss who buried twelve treasures around the United States and Canada—little boxes containing precious or semiprecious gems. He hid clues to the treasures in twelve paintings and twelve cryptic poems.

So far, three treasures have been found: one in Cleveland, one in Chicago, and, most recently, one in 2019 in Boston. That leaves nine for treasure hunters to obsess over.

And obsess they do—on websites, podcasts, YouTube channels, episodes of a reality show. Preiss died in a car accident many years ago, but thousands of fans still try to get inside his mind.

And things can get pretty heated.

There are hoaxes (people pretending to find treasure) and trolls who are banned from forums. One Secret hunter agreed to email with me, so long as I didn’t use his name, explaining: “While 99% of armchair treasure hunters are perfectly normal people, there are a few who are literally insane yet computer-literate enough to post on forums, harass people, etc.”

I found this to be true. For instance, here’s a message on Reddit: “It’s a shame the people best equipped to find this treasure are clowns like you who can’t pull your head out of your ass far enough to see the goddamn map in the goddamn painting.”

After reading several such messages, I think 99 percent might be a bit optimistic.

One of the big names in the Secret quest goes by the handle “the Oregonian.” He has a website where he dissects clues and gives his theories. I email him mid-quarantine and tell him that I’d like to find the New York–based treasure for my book. He responds that he can help. He believes he knows exactly where it is. He includes an eleven-page attachment dissecting the painting and the poem.

Puzzle image from The Secret of a woman hovering above water

He explains that the painting—which is of a white-robed, long-haired figure floating above the ocean—has a hidden 74 in the ocean waves. This is probably the longitude of New York City.

The face on the hovering figure looks like the Statue of Liberty’s, so that’s another clue that it is buried within sight of the statue.

The poem has a line about New Yorkers speaking of “Indies native.”

This likely refers to Alexander Hamilton, who was born in the West Indies. That, says the Oregonian, is a hint to a Hamilton-related location (the Oregonian asked me not to reveal said location).

And on and on.

The final answer: the treasure is buried under a tree on a side street with some abandoned storefronts (again, he asked me not to reveal which borough).

The Oregonian admits that this sounds preposterous: “To anyone who hasn’t spent some time studying The Secret, this solution is going to sound convoluted and ridiculous. And that’s kind of the point. It IS convoluted and ridiculous. The brain of Byron Preiss worked in fairly mysterious ways.”

So if the Oregonian knows where it is, why hasn’t he dug it up?

Well, he doesn’t want to go to jail. The tree is under the jurisdiction of the Parks Department. A few years ago, he got permission from the department to dig, but only if he hired an internationally certified arborist and used a power tool called an air spade–which he’d never gotten around to doing. I said I might be willing to arrange the rental of the air spade. We contacted the Parks Department. They changed their mind—no digging allowed.

And yet … a few months later, the Oregonian emailed me that maybe he’d found a loophole? On the Parks Department’s website, he spotted a note to New Yorkers who care about trees that it’s important to loosen “the top few inches of soil with a hand cultivator to undo compaction.”

“So . . . maybe you could bring a hand tool and dig a little ways?” the Oregonian wrote. He also suggested I bring marigolds and plant them to avoid suspicion. He’d do it himself, but he lives far away.

So on a Sunday, off I went on my secret horticultural mission with a shopping bag containing marigolds and a trowel. It took me nearly an entire day. I can report that one tree in New York now boasts a couple of lovely marigolds at its base, but I can also report that the Secret treasure is not buried under that tree—or at least it’s more than four inches deep, which is as far as I felt comfortable digging.

Words by A.J. Jacobs

Illustrations from The Secret by Byron Preiss

The Puzzler by AJ Jacobs

Excerpted from The Puzzler by A.J. Jacobs. Copyright © 2022 by A.J. Jacobs. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Interested in doing an Armchair Hunt of your own? Try solving the metapuzzles in TANGRAM magazine.